Burglaries of the rich and famous

When masked raiders stole gems said to be worth £1m from Cilla Black's Buckinghamshire mansion, it was simply the latest in a succession of heists involving stars and their private treasures. Brian Viner wonders if such crimes are the inevitable result of our culture's obsession with fame, wealth, glamour and celebrity lifestyles
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The Independent Online

Jack Willis, the youngest son of the Blind Date presenter Cilla Black, is today continuing to recover from his Saturday night ordeal - nothing to do with sitting through ITV's light entertainment output - in which he was overwhelmed by three masked raiders at the family's home in Denham, Buckinghamshire. The robbers stole gems reportedly worth more than £1m, among them gifts from Cilla's late husband Bobby Willis, as well as her mother's wedding and engagement rings. Cilla's close friend Dale Winton told The Sun: "I can't believe what's happening to the human race."

But the human race has always had its dregs, just as it has always had its conspicuously rich, and - leaving aside the notion that you can have a conspicuously rich dreg (I know several) - the two have never hit it off. Moreover, while it's not the moment to tell Cilla, folk with dazzling gems are probably less vulnerable to robbery than they have ever been. Indeed, it was the film director Michael Winner, himself no stranger to confrontations with late-night intruders, who once pointed out to me that we live in a far less violent society than our great-great-grandparents did.

"In Victorian times you couldn't cross St James's Park - people were garroted regularl," he said. "In 1910 there was a gang called the Peaky Blinders who had razors on the peaks of their caps. They leant forward and slashed people's faces. And there were 2,000 child brothels in London at the time. So we are not living through the most unruly period in our history."

What we are living through, however, is a period in our history when it has never been easier to see how the other half live. And the most conspicuously rich of the other half are film and television celebrities, their lovely homes displayed in magazine centrefolds, flashbulbs bouncing off their glittering tiaras at every premiere. Indeed, it is one of life's ironies that not a few of those lavishly premiered films celebrate spectacular heists. Rare is the devastatingly handsome film star who has not played a jewel thief. David Niven, Cary Grant, Steve McQueen, George Clooney and Brad Pitt all spring, light-footedly, to mind.

Little wonder, then, that thieves planning a jewellery theft might target the homes not just of the rich, but also the famous, whose lifestyles we all know so well. Lifestyle magazines are probably part of the homework. One can imagine the gang crowding round a copy of Hello! "Look, that kitchen window ain't got no locks on it... all we have to do is get in there, making sure not to knock over that china spaniel, which might wake them up in their rococo bed in the master bedroom, nip past the leopardskin-print loo and into the lounge. Look at that lovely 18th-century French mantel clock. And I bet that Lucian Freud's got a safe behind it."

Before the advent of titles preoccupied with the lifestyles of the rich and famous such as Hello! and OK!, the reference book of Britain's great and good, Who's Who, was considered to be one of the most useful items of reading matter for would-be burglars. Unlike Hello! and OK!, which leave actual addresses out, Who's Who conveniently lists many of them. A few years ago a bunch of burglars actually became known as the "Who's Who gang". The name may be less glamorous than that of the "Hole in the Wall" gang of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (there's another film that glamorises armed robbery), but if anything it's more apposite, for they deployed Who's Who to select their victims. The property pages of the magazine Country Life, filled with multi-million pound mansions and stately homes for sale, are also known to be commonly used by burglars.

Meanwhile, the list of burglary victims last year alone amounts to a who's who of modern celebrity. The former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, the supermodel Elle Macpherson, the game-show king Bruce Forsyth and the footballer Robbie Fowler were all victims of carefully planned burglaries - though in Brucie's case the villains didn't know whose house it was. Madonna's London home has also been done over, by a gang who knew exactly what they were doing: robbing the Material Girl of some of her material wealth.

So when Sir Trevor McDonald on News at Ten drops my favourite of all his many clangers, saying, "...and now for the other day's news" rather than "...and now for the day's other news", I am sometimes tempted to construct a bulletin made up entirely of items that could indeed be any day's news. Bong! Alastair Campbell at centre of new row. Bong! Celebrity talks of trauma following million-pound jewel theft. Bong! Henman loses in first round of tennis tournament in small German city.

Of course, my heart goes out to Cilla. Few of us can relate to the idea of having a million quid's worth of valuables in our homes, but we can all relate to her comment that "their sentimental value far outweighs their material worth" and, of course, to her relief that young Jack emerged unscathed. But it is hard not to compare stars' losses. Macpherson reportedly had £500,000 worth of jewellery pinched from her West London townhouse, Halliwell "only" £80,000. One wonders whether a kind of perverse oneupmanship is involved.

One wonders, too, whether there is an ulterior motive at play in the current vogue for fabulously wealthy art collectors, Elton John and Andrew Lloyd Webber among them, to unveil their collections before the nation. Sceptics have wondered whether it is vanity rather then philanthropy that drives them, although frankly, what the hell?

More relevant in the light of the raid on Cilla's house is the suggestion that, by turning their collections into permanent exhibitions, they are happily offloading the security headache on to someone else. Sir Colin St John Wilson, the architect who has offered on permanent loan to the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester his collection of 200 works by artists as diverse as Walter Sickert and William Blake, makes no bones about this, explaining that he has been jumpy about housing his own paintings since his home was broken into 20 years ago. Again, what the hell, if it means us all getting the chance to view a bunch of Canalettos previously unseen?

But Frank Cohen, the DIY tycoon from Manchester, considered the Charles Saatchi of the 1970s, denies that the security dimension is an incentive. "Burglars can't sell my stuff in public," he says. "Where are they going to sell it? They're interested in Rolex watches and leather jackets. If they saw a piece of contemporary art on the wall they'd leave it hanging."

In fact, to paraphrase the old joke about the burglars who left a particularly messy house tidier than when they found it, they'd probably look at a piece of contemporary art and decide they'd been beaten to the job by a gang maliciously wielding a can of aerosol spray.

Which brings us back to celebrities. Celebrities don't put their money into contemporary art. They put their money into gold and silver and diamonds that they can flash on Concorde and at the Sandy Lane in Barbados. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor set the trend, positively revelling in the publicity that surrounded the huge rock he bought for her.

But these days it is footballers who, even more than stars of film and television, are seen to embody conspicuous wealth of the sort that embraces small, valuable and eminently liftable trinkets. The Newcastle United manager Sir Bobby Robson likes to tell how last season his midfield player, Kieron Dyer, in a state of some considerable distress, asked the coach driver to stop the team bus on the way back from an away match, having realised that he had left his diamond earring in the dressing-room. What, asked Robson bemusedly, would old Newcastle heroes such as Len Shackleton have made of that kind of carry on? Meanwhile, the homes of the Arsenal players Kanu Nwankwo and Thierry Henry have been raided, as well as that of Robbie Fowler.

After all, plying their trade in the Premiership are young men earning upwards of £50,000 a week who have barely heard of Geoff Hurst, let alone Damien... so heaven knows what expensive baubles their mock-Georgian mansions must contain. Heaven, and that dodgy-looking geezer down the pub.

STARS STRUCK

Robbie Fowler

A masked gang broke into the football player's Leeds home - in an exclusive cul-de-sac near a golf course - last year and made off with a haul of valuables.

Madonna

In 2000, the singer, her film director husband Guy Ritchie and their two children were asleep in their Kensington house when intruders broke in. They grabbed the keys to their car and stole valuables before jumping into the £35,000 Range Rover and driving off.

Geri Halliwell

Thieves stole jewellery worth £80,000 from Halliwell's London home in Notting Hill in 2001 and sprayed her furniture with Ribena. The star was in Paris.

Frances Shand Kydd

Last October, jewels worth £100,000 were stolen from Princess Diana's mother's house on the Isle of Seil, near Oban, Scotland, while she was giving evidence at Paul Burrell's trial in London.

Bernie Ecclestone

The Formula One boss and his wife Slavica were mugged outside their London home in 1996. The thieves made off with Slavica's £600,000 ring.

Elle Macpherson

Jewellery valued at £500,000 was stolen from her townhouse in Holland Park in May last year. Macpherson and her fiancé moved soon after.